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French pension reform protests offer...

French pension reform protests offer lessons to Americans about Social Security’s future

By: Sid Salter - March 22, 2023

Sid Salter

Kicking the can down the road is not solution. We’re running out of road and running out of cans.

François-Marie Arouet – known by his literary nom de plume Voltaire – was a French writer, historian, and philosopher who died two years after the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Voltaire’s most famous work was the satire novella “Candide: The Optimist” in which the author engaged in social commentary while his protagonist Candide’s early privileged life transitioned to disillusionment and hardship.

In the novella, Voltaire offered this observation in French: “Le travail éloigne de nous trois grands maux: l’ennui, le vice et le besoin.” In English: “Work delivers us from three great evils: boredom, vice and want.”

Given the riots and civil unrest that grips France today over pension reform, one can only wonder what Voltaire would make of modern French society’s growing pension crisis and the generational divide over the issue that it engenders.

A more germane question for Americans is just what lessons can we learn from this episode when considering our own looming national crisis over the future of Social Security? First, perhaps a brief recap of the building blocks of the French protests.

After several political fits and starts in pushing a program of pension reforms, French President Emmanuel Macron used a constitutional loophole to bypass both houses of the French Parliament to raise the full retirement age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote.

France doesn’t have a monolithic retirement program like Social Security – it has 42 different programs in which the rules of each program are tied to one’s job. Full retirement ages are different depending on one’s vocation and each of those programs are tied to unions or other powerful labor and trade organizations.

Depending on whose estimate is used, U.S. Social Security is facing insolvency in 2035. French pension systems – convoluted and disjointed – faces insolvency in 2025. But the protests in the streets of France suggests two distinct camps – older workers infuriated over being asked to work longer before they retire and younger workers being asked to pay into a pension system in which they don’t have confidence will be there for them.

Despite the fact that Macron campaigned loudly and openly on pension reform when seeking the presidency, protesters in France want their president to kick the political can down the road. In the meantime, mountains of uncollected garbage line the streets of Paris. Teachers, public transit workers, energy workers and air travel workers engaged in strikes or slowdowns.

Americans have a hard time fully grasping the anger of the French populace over a two-year increase in full pension eligibility from age 62 to 64. After all, the U.S. did the same thing back in 1983 when Republican President Ronald Reagan, GOP Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill compromised on a plan to raise the full retirement age from 65 to 67 – but it was implemented over a 40-year span from 1983 to 2023.

Macron’s plan to raise the French full retirement age from 62 to 64 will be implemented over just eight years. For French workers young and old, there’s an urgency in that schedule that spurs an anger that the Gipper and the Tipper had the good sense to stretch over four decades for American workers.

But that bit of foresight in 1983 doesn’t change the inevitable clash of Social Security math – moving forward there will be more people drawing benefits from the program than there are active workers paying into the system.

In 1940, there were 42 workers paying into Social Security for every retiree drawing a benefit check. Today, there’s 2.8 covered workers for each beneficiary. By 2050, it is projected that there will be 1.95 covered workers for each beneficiary.

Social Security’s long-term funding shortfall already exceeds $20 trillion. So how great a leap is it in America – barring a recovery of the increasingly lost ability of Congress, the White House, and American taxpayers regardless their party to actually work together to govern – to see riots in the streets over Social Security?

Kicking the can down the road is not solution. We’re running out of road and running out of cans.

About the Author(s)
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Sid Salter

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications at Mississippi State University. Sid is a member of the Mississippi Press Association's Hall of Fame. His syndicated columns have been published in Mississippi and several national newspapers since 1978.